John Tagg has taught widely at universities in Britain and the United States and directed programs in art history and critical theory for more than thirty years. He was born in North Shields, a shipbuilding and fishing town at the mouth of the River Tyne in northern England, in what was then Northumberland. Following undergraduate studies in fine art and art history at the University of Nottingham, England, he went with a First to the Royal College of Art, London, where he graduated in 1973, having completed a critical study of the methodology of the German Marxist art theorist and historian, Max Raphael (1889-1952). He then taught for three years at the University of London, Goldsmiths' College, with Michael Craig-Martin, Richard Wentworth and Tim Head, and at St. Martin's School of Art with John Stezaker, while beginning to contribute regular critical essays and reviews to a number of periodicals, including Studio International and Art Monthly. His interests at this time combined an engagement with contemporary, post-conceptual art with theoretical studies of art history and its methodologies.
In 1976, following his appointment as the first Arts Council of Great Britain Fellow in Photographic History and Theory at the Polytechnic of Central London, Tagg began to concentrate on the history of photography and the analysis of visual culture, collaborating with Victor Burgin and producing the first of the studies that were later to be gathered together in The Burden of Representation: Essays of Photographies and Histories—a work that focused on the intersections of power and the photographic image. At the same time, he continued his involvement with broader debates in the field, publishing criticism, joining the editorial board of Screen Education, co-organizing a major international conference at the Institute of Contemporary Arts on “The State of British Art” with Andrew Brighton, Peter Fuller and Richard Cork, and, with Paul Smith and Angela Kelly, curating Three Perspectives on Photography, the first national survey of contemporary photography, shown at the Hayward Gallery, London, in 1979. In the same year, Tagg was asked to leave London to go to the University of Leeds to head the graduate program in “The Social History of Art” founded by T. J. Clark—the first to have as its focus the methodological and theoretical debates that, in Britain, came to be known as the “New Art History.” After five years at Leeds, in which he also published his first edited book and played an active role in regional arts administration, Tagg left England to teach in the United States, going first to the University of California at Los Angeles and then, after two years, to the State University of New York at Binghamton.
At Binghamton, from 1986, Tagg initiated and organized a series of conferences and publications under the rubric, Current Debates in Art History, while also serving three terms as Chair, leading the way in shaping the distinctive profile of what can claim to be the first art history department in the United States to have sought to define itself by an explicit commitment to new theoretical perspectives and to cross-disciplinary, cross-cultural and global approaches to the history of art, visual culture and the built environment. The same intellectual interests and commitments continued to drive Tagg’s research and writing. In this period, he published two books, The Burden of Representation and Grounds of Dispute: Art History, Cultural Politics and the Discursive Field, a second edited collection, The Cultural Politics of "Postmodernism," and numerous critical articles, while also lecturing extensively at universities and museums in Britain and North America, speaking at conferences across a range of disciplines, contributing to television and radio broadcasts, and being awarded both the Binghamton University Award and the State University of New York Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching. Support for his writing and research at this time came from an Ailsa Mellon Bruce Senior Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. (1990-1991), a Senior Fellowship at the Society for the Humanities at Cornell University (1996-1997), and a Clark Fellowship at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts (2005). In addition, Tagg was invited to deliver the Lansdowne Lectures at the University of Victoria, Canada, in 1990 and the Benenson Lectures at Duke University in 1994.
More recently, Tagg has worked on the completion of two further books. The first, Maps of Modernity, is a primer in art history and cultural theory that is to be published by the Pergamon Press, formerly Macmillan, in England. The second, The Disciplinary Frame: Photographic Regimens and the Capture of Meaning, looks at the ways in which photographic technologies have been claimed and deployed and analyses the discursive and institutional relations of power that have framed photographic meaning and attributed the photograph a remarkable status as evidence and proof of one sort or another. Beginning with a reconsideration of the relation of documentation, documentary and governance, the book moves on towards an engagement with disciplinarity and the conditions of disciplinary knowledge that turns back on the disciplines of history and art history themselves. The book was published in 2009 by the University of Minnesota Press, the publisher of two earlier books in the United States. Tagg’s current project focuses on questions of politics and meaning in the photographs Walker Evans made in Cuba in May and June of 1933, on the very eve of revolution. In 2007 and 2008, Tagg was awarded a J. Clawson Mills Senior Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, to pursue research in the Walker Evans Archive in the Department of Photographs.
Tagg’s teaching at Binghamton continues to explore similar intellectual territory, crossing a number of departments and programs with which he is affiliated, including Art History, Comparative Literature and Philosophy, Interpretation and Culture. His courses fall broadly in the areas of the history of photography, American twentieth-century cultural history, the history of art history, and critical theory—though this is not perhaps the best way to describe his interests. Recent graduate seminar titles have included: “Photography and Death;” “The Politics of Documentary;” “RE: Thinking Photography;” “Photo/Text;” “Picturing Crisis;” “Marxism and Representation;” “Cultural Strategies and the State;” “The Vision Thing;” “Meaning and Melancholia;” “Art History: Genealogy of a Discipline;” and “Art History After Structuralism.” In all the courses he offers, at every level of the curriculum from the introductory 100-level to interdisciplinary graduate seminars that draw students from Art History, Comparative Literature, English, History and Philosophy, Tagg sets out to engage students in close critical reading and in a process of questioning that does not take the narratives and analytical strategies of cultural history as simply given.
Tagg continues to contribute to television broadcasts, to speak at conferences across a wide range of disciplines, and to lecture at universities and museums around the world, most recently in China, Norway, Sweden and Poland. In spring semester 2012, he will be in residence at the University of Pennsylvania as Visiting Scholar in Communications and Culture in the Annenberg School for Communication. Biographical interviews with Tagg can be found in the British Library National Sound Archive’s Oral History of British Photography: www.bl.uk/collections/sound-archive/historyphoto.html. And in the Center for Creative Photography’s “Voices of Photography” archival oral history project: www.creativephotography.org/collections/research/voices.php.
Last Updated: 7/28/11